Feb 162012

[Cross Posted over at Culture Digitally]

It has been a strange couple of days in #GAMEDEV land. For those that haven’t followed Double Fine’s Adventure on KickStarter, now would be a good time to start.

The short story is that a small studio run by a game development luminary employing other game development legends managed to secure a great deal of fan and game developer funding in a very short span of time. Crazier still is that the KickStarter project remains open for another 28 days. Included in this whole production is one that is particularly appealing to me, as an ethnographer of game development, that of a documentary team focused on those developing this game. No longer will I ever fear being asked of my anthropological presence, “will this distract my employees?” Now I can reply, “Double Fine had an entire documentary team.” Of course this wont be “normal” development either, it will be a team focused on a project that was KickStarted, not funded by an external publisher, to whom they are accountable.

As someone that looks at the political economy of the game industry as well, this signals a very strange shift in the game industry that I don’t think (and neither does Tim Schafer) fits into the kinds of questions being asked currently. For many, the question has been primarily, “Did Tim Schafer just break the game industry?” I’d say it was already broken. Steam, The Apple App Store and Android Market saw to that. It doesn’t mean that traditional form publishing is dead, but it was already undergoing a sea change. The old models that once dominated the game industry, rooted in high-priced media and distribution channels hamstrung by large retailers is now changing.

Rather, this is about the maturation of game development and games as a form of media still attempting to find itself. Recently, Ian Bogost on Gamasutra wrote about Game Bundles as a form of entertainment and patronage (among other things). That is certainly part of it, but I’m interested in it as a form of co-production. Many of these recent KickStarter campaigns at the upper echelons offer the opportunity to act as a co-developer, designer or character. It offers another avenue into the game industry, or an avenue to demonstrate one’s existing success as an opportunity to influence or partake in the projects of others with little risk. Or it is an opportunity to get to know a famous game developer who one might not otherwise have the chance to interact with. In an industry so dependent upon social networks, it allows those with enough money to insert themselves into those networks.

Thus, it is part co-production, part entertainment, part patronage and something else. It is the ability to buy your way into a game’s credits, design process or even development team. Isn’t that precisely what so angers gamers about gold-farming? Yet, there has not been the same reaction to these activities for small developers. There has been some negative backlash against Double Fine’s initiatives, but the majority have seen this as a win for game developers. As senior designers leave established studios to begin their own, many will likely explore the KickStarter option as it taps into their fan’s desire to be part of the action and willing to fork over the money for that experience.

I also wonder what this means, long term, for game development projects on KickStarter. I’ve funded several small projects by people new to the game industry, many working on their very first game. KickStarter is used as a means to justify the adventure capital necessary for creating a first game. In many cases the primary fans tapped for these projects are friends and family. In many cases these projects go unfunded or are funded near their deadline with a great deal of the support not from the “crowd,” but rather from those closest to the individuals proposing the project.

For me? I backed it so I could get the documentary. 😉

Jan 272012

As usual, I’m chasing the Ice Cream Truck.

I’ve been thinking a lot about users / producers (and for me this continues to be game developers) and procedural rhetoric(s). Ian’s comments in particular spurred my thoughts on this. I’m going to omit much of the broader conversation around a certain recent essay, but I want to address two things. Thingness and power gamers (Taylor 2006).

I’ll start with power gamers, which I think the afformentioned essay doesn’t get right. In T.L.’s work, power gamers partake in “instrumental play.” I like to think of instrumental play as an alternative narrative to the dominant discourse surrounding “casual” versus “hard core” gamers. Many game developers no longer count as “hard core” within this dichotomy; nor are they casual, either. Instead I posit another term, instrumental players, who are dedicated not to a particular genre or subset of games, but who consistently and persistently attempt to dissect their games from the mechanics up. This may very well be what Gina refers to as a kind of “emergent” understanding/knowledge (and one that I maintain that current educational models of knowledge simply cannot accept).

Many designers play very few hardcore titles because the mechanics are instantly recognizable, and their interest lies in uncovering structures. Many so-called casual gamers are adept instrumental players. Their ability to strategically change their play based on knowledge of the underlying system is precisely the kind of instrumental rationality and sensitivity for the underlying game mechanics that are so crucial for game developers. However, many instrumental gamers find it difficult to simply observe or play games because they have difficulty resisting the urge to determine how a system functions. They continually see the underlying systems and may find it difficult to participate in either casual or hardcore attitudes, immersing themselves in a particularly complex game intensely until they feel adequately satisfied that they understand the underlying systems that make it function.

This is where I really disagree with the characterization of instrumental play in Sicart’s essay: Instrumental play should be distinguished from a kind of “instrumental rationality” or “instrumental reason” as it might be defined by critical theorists of the Frankfurt School (Adorno and Horkheimer 1976). Instrumental play is distinguished from these theoretical categories in that it has no claim to the irreducible or absolute. In fact, instrumental play would continue to probe into the structures of what is considered irreducible.

Instrumental play is about searching out associations, analogies, and relationships, much like “Enlightened” scientific inquiry, but it makes no assumptions about the absolute character of those suppositions. This is where the “play” component of instrumental play is crucial. There is always the assumption that what you are working on or working with will swerve and send you in new directions. This is more in line with the idea of the game developer as “bricoleur” (Lévi-Strauss 1962, p. 17), adept at performing numerous diverse tasks, “mak[ing] do with whatever is at hand,” (Lévi-Strauss 1962, p. 17). The concept of bricolage, or the bricoleur, is not new to the studies of technological development, but instrumental work/play plugs into the bricoleur’s underlying drive, which is to push one’s tools to the brink and pull off “risky” moves, doing what others have thus been unable to do. Put another way, instrumental work/play is what pushes bricoleurs to attempt creations that strain their understandings, no matter the extent to which that bricolage understanding appears to be “reality.” There is always a time and place to question the bricolage system that one has constructed in an effort to pull off a new feat of creative work.

Like with “thingness” and materiality. Ian’s comment, that it isn’t one way or the other, but both is important. Designers DO implement underlying systems. There are limits, particularly for game developers, where they bump into both silicon/electrons/hardware/firmware/software. The design process for game developers — that push and pull of negotiated development — determines where the bottom is. Games are based on something that must be felt out and determined by the players. Much like developers run into the limits of electrons and silicon. Specifications are made, but they are not made up; they’re the result of a negotiated process, which is frequently the product of instrumental play.

Instrumental work/play is rooted in the culture of gamers, who place significant importance on the act of working through the complex problems found in videogames. Any circumvention of this labor is often seen as a circumvention of the rules. Players are expected to play within the rules of the system, though circumvention through legitimate play is often seen as exemplary play (Consalvo 2007). Personally and deeply exploring the systems one works within is at the core of instrumental work/play. These same motivations also seem to plug into the ethic of secrecy that dominates the videogame industry. Much like “walkthroughs” are seen as the tool of the less adept videogame player, most game developers expect one another to understand the processes and practices that are, for all intents and purposes, undocumented.

Thus, it is both, right? The emergent, but also the very real algorithms, like Tarleton talks about. I do agree that not every player is so dedicated, but I wonder… Maybe moreso than we give them credit for. Its an empirical question that Hector and I have discussed examining around Fold.it. For me, the power gamer lies at the boundary between “normal” user and producer. They really negotiate this tension.

Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. 1976. Dialectic of Enlightenment Translated by Cumming, John. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Consalvo, Mia. 2007. Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lévy-Strauss, Claude. 1962. The Savage Mind, Edited by Julian Pitt-Rivers and Ernest Gellner. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, T. L. 2006. Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Gaming Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.